Martha Hall Kelly, 2016
This longish review contains spoilers. They aren’t major, but if you are new to the book and want to read it with a virgin mind, as I did, read the book first and then read the review.
Lilac Girls (Martha Hall Kelly, author) is the story of three women and a war: American Caroline, Polish Kasia, and German Herta. The setting and plot is World War II Nazi-occupied Poland (because World War II creates its own plot).
I read the Kindle version, with no prior research. Below is my experience as I moved through the story (and this is where you want to stop if you don’t want spoilers):
Each main character has her own first-person voice. Chapter One (I promise I am not going to walk through each chapter), devoted to Caroline, is frenetically paced. We learn that Caroline used to act on Broadway and that she now works for the French Consulate in a New York City described in excessive detail. The chapter ends with the news that Hitler has invaded Poland, closing with the words “May God help us all,” as spoken by the maître d’ at a restaurant.
Chapter Two is Kasia’s voice, and the contrast between the simplicity of her world and the clutter of Caroline’s New York is striking. The description of the first Nazi attack on Kasia’s city of Lublin is evocative, with genuine beauty amidst the slaughter.
Chapter Three is the voice of Dr. Herta Oberheuser, Nazi doctor. We all know what Nazi doctors did, and this is the case with Herta. Even speaking in the first person, she appears on the inside to be what we see on the outside – a loyal Nazi with scorn for the weak.
My experience of the three voices as presented in these chapters held true throughout the novel: Caroline is presented awkwardly but with obvious fondness on the author’s part, with real celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe dropped clumsily into her universe. Wallis Simpson makes an appearance and Norman Cousins is present for much of the last part of the book. This apparent name-dropping was odd and very noticeable; the author’s presence is felt so strongly I wanted to look for her fingerprints in the margins.
Kasia’s words I read without any sense of intrusion by the author. Her characterization and her narrative are natural and believable. Interestingly, Kasia addresses the reader directly in the opening sentence of Chapter Eight (“what you must understand . . .”). I am curious about this choice; it happens nowhere else in the novel.
Herta remains a cardboard character. There is no expression of sadistic pleasure in the atrocities she has committed; neither is there remorse, except for the possible shadow of a hint of regret about Malina, Kasia’s mother. Any questions we might have about her motivation remain completely unanswered.
There are no plot twists; this is a story of Nazi atrocity and its aftermath.
I wondered about the contrast in writing style between characters – Caroline and Kasia, specifically. Kasia was written so beautifully, while Caroline’s world was populated with superfluous characters and events. When I finished the book, I read Kelly’s note at the end and I understood something that probably every other reader already knew:
This is based on a true story, and two of the three main characters are based on people who existed. Would I have experienced the story differently if I had known that? Probably; I would have fact checked every celebrity who showed up in Caroline’s life as well as every action taken by Oberheuser. I’m glad I didn’t do this; I only had one chance to read this with fresh eyes.
Caroline Ferriday2 existed. Martha Hall Kelly researched her exhaustively and tried her best to bring Caroline to life, including tidbits that were historically accurate such as celebrity name dropping. The author’s notes state that she did try to incorporate some of Caroline’s own words into the story.
Herta Oberheuser3 existed. She was tried and sentenced to prison for the atrocities she committed, as depicted in the novel.
Kasia, the most beautifully and naturally written character, did not exist, although she was based on a real person. Ms. Hall Kelly didn’t have to write to fit historical facts or characterizations, and without all that clutter she was able to produce a believable, authentic character.
I’ve had a couple of readers comment that they wondered why Caroline Ferriday is even part of the story. It’s because Caroline is the catalyst. The real Caroline facilitated the healing of a number of Polish women who suffered crippling injuries as a result of Herta Oberheuser’s ‘experiments,’ and she was also instrumental in the loss of Oberheuser’s license to practice medicine after the war. A visit to Caroline’s family home was the author’s inspiration for the book.
Would I read this again, knowing what I know about the plot and characterization? No, and I will not be reading the prequel, Lost Roses. Wartime fiction is just not my cup of tea. However, I am grateful for the new historical information made available to me by Martha Hall Kelly, and I am likely to do a bit more reading about Caroline Ferriday in particular.
1All The Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr) I put off reading this book for a long time due to my general dislike of WWII fiction, and I was so glad that I finally did read it. It’s fresh and original, with a good bit of whimsy.
2There is an abundance of information on Caroline Ferriday online, including photos of Caroline and photos of the women who are represented in this book.
3The infamous Herta Oberheuser is also easy to locate online.